Confronting White Nationalism in Schools

Review by Nora Flanagan, Jessica Acee, and Lindsay Schubiner

Americans across the country report a rise in white nationalism and other bigoted extremism. Because schools are hubs of our communities, they have become battlegrounds for extremist organizing. There is evidence that white nationalist groups are specifically targeting young people with their messaging. These groups test market slang on Twitter, rewrite popular songs with white nationalist lyrics, and join mainstream video game platforms, all to reach a young audience.

In this toolkit, we’ll share strategies to counter white nationalist organizing in schools through sample scenarios that schools frequently encounter. Whether a student has been found passing out white nationalist flyers or buttons on school property, or more actively advocating for a “white pride” student group, the following pages offer advice for parents, students, teachers, school administrators, and the wider community. Many resources currently exist that address diversity, inclusion, and bullying in schools; a few of them are listed in the resources section. This toolkit is specifically focused on responding to white nationalist targeting and recruitment of students.

It’s easy to miss an unfamiliar white nationalist symbol, or feel unsure about how to respond to a student citing a white nationalist source in the classroom. There’s a lot to keep track of when working with young people; we want to make it easier to recognize these behaviors (and those responsible), and to take action.

Everyone who engages in the life of a school is in a unique position to isolate and push back against the growing white nationalist movement and the hateful narratives they tout. It’s time to own that power. Our job is to build schools where everyone feels valued, and where our students can grow to be engaged citizens of an inclusive democracy.

What Are We Talking About When We Say “White Nationalism”?

White nationalism is a term that originated among white supremacists in the post-1960s Civil Rights era. While initially used as a euphemism for white supremacy, by the late 1990s, white nationalism emerged as its own distinct ideology with an emphasis on anti-Semitism and the creation of all-white ethno-states through violence and policies that increase the vulnerability, criminalization and removal of minorities and other targeted communities.

White nationalism is implicitly violent, as its goal of an entirely white nation state can only be realized through violent means. Short of achieving its end goal, white nationalism directly and indirectly influences a myriad of policies ranging from immigration enforcement, voter disenfranchisement and suppression, and state disinvestments that continue to marginalize and repress communities of color.

Today white nationalism operates as a bigoted social movement that aims to build political power toward its goal of a white nation. It is distinct from white supremacy, which is a system of oppression designed to maintain control over people of color and the rights of all women.

White nationalists often mask their ideology using positive statements of love for white people rather than overt hate, and they seek to recruit supporters based on disingenuous arguments that white people are victims. They argue that racial diversity and demographic changes are equal to white genocide. “Identity Evropa,” a white nationalist group now rebranded as the American Identity Movement, has disseminated flyers that say “Protect Your Heritage,” or “Our Future Belongs to Us,” for example. White nationalists also use anti-immigrant, anti-Black, and anti-Muslim rhetoric focused on crime or terrorism to appeal to fear and prejudice among their audience. Misogyny, which describes hatred or prejudice against women, is similarly a key recruitment tool for white nationalist groups. These groups also mobilize homophobia and trans-phobia (bigotry directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people) for similar purposes.

Why This Matters

All teenagers seek a sense of identity and belonging. White nationalist organizations know this and look for ways to connect with young people in order to grow their base. It takes vigilance on the part of teachers, administrators and parents to ensure that all members of a school community feel connected in positive ways and are not left vulnerable to extremist rhetoric or recruitment.

Adults often dismiss early indications of hateful ideology as a student ‘pushing boundaries’ or ‘acting out’ and while this might also be true, in many cases they are dismissing warning signs of a dangerous warning signs of a dangerous affiliation taking root. Race may not initially enter the picture; recent events demonstrate strong connections between misogyny, the sexist subculture “InCel” (short for involuntary celibate), and white nationalist ideology. What might seem innocuous or isolated, like a student scratching a swastika into a desk or a sudden spike in misogynistic or anti-Muslim language, warrants a response that clarifies behavioral expectations, affirms the value of all human life, and opens a dialogue with students to interrupt this behavior.

Left unchecked, white nationalist ideology and affiliation are dangerous. Once a student is connected to white nationalism, online or in real life, it is difficult for them to disconnect, so the best time to intervene in a young person’s affiliation is early. After they identify with white nationalism or another bigoted ideology intervening can be very dangerous. We urge the utmost in caution at this stage. White nationalism brings inherently violent and escalating threats to the families and communities it impacts. It is no accident that a number of incidents of mass shootings have involved white nationalist ideology. Scapegoating marginalized communities is one warning sign for violence.

White nationalist groups seek power and an organized base of support. Schools are an obvious target. This toolkit is designed to help you take back any space, however small or large, that white nationalism may try to carve out in your school community.

How to Use This Toolkit

This toolkit works best as a guide with suggestions and resources to help school communities navigate their own questions and challenges. Students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and other community entities can collaborate to adapt these approaches and find new solutions. Our goal is to provide effective resources to all members of school communities so that they may place obstacles in the path of those who would attempt to harm them.

We focus on high schools, but many of these resources also apply to middle schools and colleges. While this toolkit was created to offer tips and strategies on how to respond to white nationalist and other extremist organizing in schools, the following resources can and should be applied to any situation where you see potentially harmful activity. We encourage other anchor entities—libraries, faith-based organizations, community centers, and others—to discuss these scenarios and strategies, engage with local schools, and collaborate to strengthen community responses to hate.

A resource section is included at the end of this toolkit to aid your learning and help your school community grow stronger. One key resource is a list of proactive steps and best practices for schools. The section includes related resource guides, sample policies and language, and basic information on the white nationalist groups most likely to recruit in schools. Links to further reading also provide a starting point for your own research.

Please consider reaching out to Western States Center at info@wscpdx.org  to share your experience countering white nationalism in your school. We hope this toolkit is helpful as you strengthen your school community against bigotry.

 Request a free PDF of the toolkit at https://www.westernstatescenter.org/schools

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